tv review

Nussbaum: Betrayed by Dexter

Michael C. Hall in the season finale.

I’ve long been a Dexter groupie, ever since I gulped down the first two seasons, sleepless, late at night, during maternity leave. (Sick, I know, but there you go.) So I was excited when, after a weak third season, the show came roaring back last year, ending with a finale of uncompromising horror: Dexter’s wife, Rita, dead in the bathtub, her son howling by her side. The fifth season, I imagined, would be amazing — grief, fatherhood, chickens coming home to roost.

Well, what a letdown.

Now there were clearly people who adored the way the season played out, including our excellent recapper, who felt the power of the Dexter-Lumen romance in a way that I — coldhearted monster! — did not. But Vulture is large, we contain multitudes. So here’s my contrarian season-long analysis, directed not so much at the finale itself, but at the larger arc of the season.

Because the thing is, Season Five started strong, following immediately on the Season Four climax. Dexter (Michael C. Hall) was catatonic with grief, and since he was a suspect in Rita’s death, his freaky affect looked even worse. In the second most disturbing scene in the series, he told his stepchildren she was dead while wearing a Mickey Mouse hat, helplessly mimicking the funeral home staff: “I’m sorry for your loss.” The writers had their protagonist balanced perfectly on the show’s moral tightrope: was Dexter Morgan a sociopathic Pinocchio, willing himself into humanity? Or was that just a lie he’d been telling himself in order to justify his increasingly complex triple-life as forensics scientist/serial killer/family man?

In the aftermath of Rita’s death, Dexter sought out what he’d been craving throughout his marriage: solitude. He found a nanny for Harrison (her mysterious past never came up, leaving interesting possibilities for next year, I suppose). His stepkids fled to their paternal grandparents. (Side note: But what happened to Rita’s mother? It’s insane that they never even showed her.) Meanwhile, the cathartic rituals Dexter relied on weren’t working, even when he stumbled on an ugly case: a ring of men raping and torturing women, then killing them, in a hidden attic.

And then Dexter found his psychological mirror, as he does each season. But this time, she was, for the first time, a victim — which forced Dexter, at first, to be her kidnapper. She’d been raped and tortured. Like him, the trauma had changed her. And over the season, she became Dexter’s partner: Their shared revenge murders were explicitly presented as erotic unions. Step by step, she became his ideal rebound lover — a light in his darkness. (Unsubtly named Lumen.)

In Julia Stiles’s performance, Lumen was sweet and stalwart and occasionally terrified. I’m not saying she didn’t have her moments: that scene of Dexter and Lumen bonding by Rita’s bathtub was quite affecting, and I liked their Tracy-and-Hepburn sparring in the warehouse. But early on, doubts crept in — about both Stiles’s performance and the character. Certainly, someone who’d survived a rape might react many different ways, but Lumen had been tortured by multiple men, over days or weeks, blindfolded, held captive, and threatened with death. And yet, the character seemed (for all her talk of dark impulses) oddly … sanguine. She had a few issues — she anxiously shredded sugar packets and was freaked out (rather presciently!) by the airport pat-down — but no true signs of PTSD, uncontrollable rage, unpredictability, sadness, sexual issues, or any damage other than her understandable craving to kill her rapists.

There was one fascinating episode when Lumen targeted the wrong guy — a glimmer of ambiguity that made me wonder if she’d go all Aileen Wuornos. But that was quickly abandoned, and soon, she and Dexter were on a mission of pure justice. After their mutual kill, Lumen initiates sex. It’s beautiful, it’s pure: She’s sunshine in the pit of his psyche.

But wait, who was Lumen, anyway? A small-town rebel who’d dumped her fiancée, apparently. Who came to Miami, who was kidnapped: We never find out how. A sweet girl in love with her (oddly creepy) hometown honey, but panicked at marriage. There were hints, scraps of a character, but any potential for Lumen to feel like a true individual, with a family, a history, an emotional life with repercussions, shriveled as she became a plot device: the first woman who could be more than a murder groupie or a brainwashed shill. It was a concept that made sense for Dexter. But it didn’t make sense for Lumen: The series erased all nuance, all threat, all difference in order to make way for Dexter’s healing. Even Rita, who could be both shrill and sweet, had more layers. Same for Dexter’s dark-mirror brother in season one, his psycho mistress in season two, and his family-man role model Trinity in season four. (We’ll leave Miguel out of this.)

This simplicity, and Stiles’s spunky-bland persona, began to grate on me as the season moved toward its finale — even to seem, in some troubling, subtle way I couldn’t put my finger on, exploitative. And that was something I’d rarely thought about the show, despite its subject matter. Dexter has always been strikingly uninterested in sexual violence. (“Why is everyone so obsessed with rape?” he growled, hilariously, at a family-killing cop last year, when she accused him of wanting to assault her.) The idea of an archetypal rape survivor on Dexter was intriguing: It was the primal Buffy concept, in which the disposable blonde victim steps center stage and becomes real. And, truly, Lumen could have been both an interesting character and a rebound lover: Instead, she was a cipher, a healer who herself gets miraculously healed, with one final knife thrust — and who is then, in the finale, released by the plot. For all the talk of change (the theme of the season, for both Lumen and Jordan), there was no weight to that final transformation, since they’d never really made clear who Lumen was in the first place.

And Lumen wasn’t the only one who made half-sense. I adored the idea of the villainous psycho motivational speaker, whose motto was “take it” (and I loved Jonny Lee Miller’s grinning, swaggering performance). But again, the backstory was sketchy. He’d once been a fat boy, who egged his friends on to a premeditated gang rape. And that’s the way they all became the Rapey Bunch — torturing and murdering a dozen blondes over decades, without compunction, without any meaningful or logical group dynamic, without getting caught. I’m willing to believe a lot of bad things about the world, and also to cut this show slack, since it’s more symbolic than realistic. But past “big bads” have rarely been pure bogeymen. It was certainly creepy that Emily — the ur-victim — became a groupie to her rapist, but why? How? Basically, if there are going to be multiple raped women on the series, I want them to be full humans. (It’s what elevated Silence of the Lambs above your run-of-the-mill necro-porn.)

Let’s not even address the fact that the series ended with a birthday party for Harrison, at which everyone was smiling — not, say, weeping about missing his mother, who was murdered months before!

Okay, wait, let’s address this: It’s just wrong that the show has dealt with Rita’s death only as something for Dexter to recover from. Historically, the character has been an antihero: He makes us uncomfortable. Yes, we root for Dexter, because he is smart and funny, because he kills people who deserve it and because he looks like Michael C. Hall. But in the early seasons (and even in the flashback to his courtship of Rita), we’d also see him in another light: Dexter is a compulsive, ritualistic, premeditated murderer. His motives aren’t pure — he’s killing because he gets off on it, using righteousness as his excuse. And if, over the years, he’s learned to first fake and then maintain intimacy, there’s always a troubling undercurrent, which the Trinity Killer made explicit: The more family Dexter has, the more hostages he’s holding. When his children find out who he really is, they’ll do what his father did: vomit with fear and anguish. The more he loves them, the more he’s potentially hurting them.

But this season, it felt like the writers had gotten Stockholm Syndrome and thrown out the shadow with the bathwater — that they had decided that Dexter was Pinocchio. And really, in the second half of the season, Dexter was pretty purely a romantic hero. The men he killed were so evil they practically oozed radioactive oil. Their victim was loving and pure. Any collateral damage was accidental: Jordan was the one who killed Emily — and though Dexter killed Liddy, the dude was a gone-rogue cop whose own ex-partner feared him. Good riddance!

Still, there was one thing that kept me going this season, and it’s what will keep me onboard, despite all my criticism: Deb, Dexter’s cop sister, whose shadows have grown as her brother’s have dwindled, in large part owing to the bold, magnetic, nuanced performance of Jennifer Carpenter. If I resisted buying in to the Lumen romance, I bought the finale’s other plot twist: that Deb might let the Vigilante Couple off the hook, sight unseen. She’d been a victim herself. She’d killed and felt no remorse. And as questionable as it might be to Dexter and to us, her affair with Quinn had eased her into ideas about forgiveness and moral gray areas.

My guess is that she knew it was Dexter, subconsciously — and that’s why she never looked behind the curtain. Next season, that curtain has to be pulled back once and for all. I may not be happy today, but I’ll be watching.

Nussbaum: Betrayed by Dexter